- The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology by Nadia Abu El-Haj
race science, Zionism, DNA, Israel, identity genetics
This book is brimming with insights about the complex ways in which ancestry and population genetics have informed Jewish identity making and seeking. The author knowingly steps into the highly charged arena of scientific, religious, and cultural claims about authentic or provable Jewish identity, and convincingly elucidates the many slippages that exist between genetic information and cultural, national, religious, and ethnic heritage.
Instead of reading DNA as a script, El-Haj argues that “DNA evidence does not generate historical stories” (240), and that taking DNA evidence as proof is problematic because “the messiness and density of the social world is reduced to clean lines on phylogenetic trees” (241). The Genealogical Science explores this messiness and density in six chapters that delve into various dimensions of Jewish identity and ancestry genetics. El-Haj is interested in knowledge production, specifically how genetic sciences have generated new epistemologies that inform Jewish identity, historical narratives, and stories of origins and belonging. How are narratives crafted with the tools of anthropological, population, and ancestry genetics? How do these emplotments reinforce or trouble popular or emergent understandings of the Jewish people’s long history of struggle, diaspora, and community?
Chapter 1 examines the “forms of evidence that anthropological geneticists use to map group-based diversity, to construct population phylogenics, and to determine the ‘origins’ of specific groups” (34). El-Haj focuses on Y-chromosome studies that have sought to demonstrate the lineage of the Cohanim priesthood through paternal kinship lines. She shows how many scientists, even as they aimed to trace the lineage of a particular ethno-religious group, dissociated their work from earlier race science by emphasizing their utilization of the noncoding (“junk”) section of the Y-chromosome to determine ancestry. [End Page 518]
Chapter 2 moves into the question of Jewish identity in the historical context of the founding of Israel, asking to what extent Zionism was built on understandings of biological difference. El-Haj perceptively discusses how eugenics and theories of degeneration fueled what became a murderous anti-Semitism. However, she also discusses how in their quest for modernizing their collective identity, many Jewish scientists also embraced and re-appropriated race science in the early twentieth century. She follows this history into the post-World War II period, when Jewish scientists, many with strong Zionist beliefs, relied upon and expanded these kinds of scientific identity projects (through blood group studies, for example). She argues “Israeli population genetics was a biopolitical project of relevance to—even if not seamlessly directed by—the interest of a newly founded state and the struggle of its various elites (political, military, scientific) to produce a Jewish nation that it presumed already to exist” (108).
Chapter 3 highlights the proliferation of Y-chromosome studies in the 1990s, as well as the development of mitochondrial DNA studies designed to identify shared “modal” haplotypes among various female Jewish populations. El-Haj reminds us about the difficulty of using the results of such studies, which gather data from disparate diasporic groups, as pure evidence, instead raising the compelling question of how the pursuit of such genetic information and its presentation in scientific papers are part and parcel of a project of Jewish identity construction which is contested and shifting.
In Chapter 4, El-Haj turns her attention to the fascinating issue of the recent rise of genetic genealogy companies, such as Family Tree DNA. She critically assesses the products offered by such commercial ventures, which perpetuate the idea that individuals can descend from “ethnically pure—‘original’—populations” [her italics] (171). However, rather than get tangled up in arguments about the validity of the science, El-Haj wants to explore how this genetic information, promoted by companies and desired by many consumers, provides elements for identity narratives, particularly among ethnic and racial groups with long histories of systematic...